Twelve years after John Mellencamp first approached Stephen King with a story about two dead brothers, which he thought could be the basis for a musical, the unlikely musical theater duo emerged in 2012 with “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.” It’s a southern gothic story about the McCandless brothers, Jack and Andy, who were killed in an accident and whose spirits relive that tragedy for eternity, trapped in a cabin in Mississippi, haunting their living family. With its combination of supernatural themes, American roots music and family drama, it’s right in keeping with what King and Mellencamp have done all along, with soundtrack producer T-Bone Burnett. The national tour for “Ghost Brothers” kicks off at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9, at the Collins Center for the Arts at the University of Maine. Cast members include Gina Gershon as the mother, Monique McCandless, and Billy Burke as the father, Joe McCandless. Tickets are $39-$79 and are available via collinscenterforthearts.com or by calling 207-581-1755. The Bangor Daily News spoke with King by phone earlier in October.
When John Mellencamp came to you with this idea for a musical, what was your reaction?
I was still on crutches from being hit by that van in 1999, so John must have come to me around the year 2000. He got in touch through a guy who we knew, and he came down to Florida and he tuned my guitar and he told me this story, which he said was based on something that happened in a cabin he bought in Indiana. He said, “Could you do something with that?” I said, “I think I can, but I’ve never written a musical before.” Well, neither of us had.
What did you add to that initial story?
I wanted to bring a bit of that old Bible feeling — Cain and Abel. The story he told me was that there was some sort of accident. The brothers got drunk and were showing off for this girl, and one of them shot the other. They loaded the wounded body in the car and took off for the hospital, but they crashed and were both killed. The kicker is that their ghosts haunt that cabin where it all took place. I thought, “I can work with that.” We added some characters and built a structure where we could flash back. It was a lot of fun.
How did the experience of writing lyrics differ from all the writing you normally do?
It was very refreshing to work in that format, and it was great to have an experienced songwriter on the other end of the phone anytime I wanted to call. The way that we worked was that little by little I built the story until we had an outline. I’d say, “A song should go here.” John would go into his studio in Indiana and do a demo with his guitar. He’s never going to be Eric Clapton on the guitar, by the way, but he’s adequate. And he’s a lot better than I am. So he’d send me one of these demos, and I’d listen to it. The fun part was taking that song and building on either side of it so that the story would run smoothly through it. I have no idea how Lerner and Loewe did it, but that’s how we did it and it worked for us.
A musical by correspondence.
Exactly! That’s exactly how we did it. A musical correspondence course is what it was. We learned as we went along.
Which song is your favorite?
There’s a song called “Away From This World.” I love the song. It really moved my heart. I worked for a long time to get the setting right for it so it would be a jewel in a ring, so it would really stand out. You know, music can do things emotionally that other things can’t. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but a song can be worth ten thousand words. And you can say things with lyrics that you can’t with regular words. That’s why you watch “West Side Story” — and it’s a terrific story, because it’s “Romeo and Juliet” — and when you hear “Tonight,” it takes it to another level.
Once these national tours are finished and it has been out in the world for a few years, where do you see this show living?
So far, it’s like Frankenstein. It’s the thing that wouldn’t die. It keeps coming back in different forms. We did a long stint in Atlanta and then we took it on the road. This is an entirely different version. It was always built with one thing in mind, which was that it would be possible to do this in repertory theater for years and years, and I hope that happens. I hope it’s a community theater project.
What albums or bands are you really digging right now?
I’m listening to this guy named Jason Dean Williams, who’s like the second coming of Jerry Lee Lewis. I love that guy. He plays this crazed boogie woogie. And I’m listening to a lot of Robert Earl Keen and Ray Wylie Hubbard and James McMurtry. I like a lot of the stuff that they call Americana or alt-country. To me, it sounds like old rock ‘n’ roll. But I’m also excited because there’s a new AC/DC album coming out. I heard the cut they released called “Play Ball,” and I think it’s terrific.
Do you have any special plans for Halloween?
I plan to hide. We opened the house in Bangor of a couple times, and word got around, and we’d get thousands of people on the street and annoy the neighbors, and it was kind of scary how many people showed up. Now we keep our heads down.